But next morning Neil felt low and cold as he tramped the streets, trying not to slip on the ice. He could not afford to break his legs now; they had to carry him until he could find a job.
And suddenly, that March day, he had a job.
He had gone into the establishment of Brandl: The Beltrami Avenue Florist to see if he could buy a crocus or two for Vestal. The little old Bavarian, Ulrich Brandl, who in grander days had sold him orchids (white scarf and white kid gloves and Vestal’s smile and glitter and all the white man’s memories), hailed him cozily:
“Ah, Captain, let me have the pleasure to give you this small bunch of crocuses. I have heard about your braveness. I understand it, for I was born a German and, though I hated Hitler and all oppression, and though I have been a good American for thirty-five years, when I come in a saloon for my glass of beer, I hear certain fellows say, ‘The only good German is a dead German.’ All prejudice is one. Could I shake your hand?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a job for me, would you?”
“That also, perhaps. I would be flattered if you worked for me.”
So Neil became a florist’s clerk, probably knowing less about flowers and the freshening of them and their packing than anybody except Hack Riley of Mayo Street. But he was zealous, and the customers did not indicate that they were undergoing any horrors in being waited upon by a Negro. The jungle dampness of the shop, the gilded tinfoil, the piles of unwrinkled tissue paper, were relaxing, after miles of factories and the hard chairs outside the boss’s office.
All day long he argued mildly with Mr. Brandl, who inveighed against all prejudices and superstitions, and himself, it proved, was prejudiced against nothing except Englishmen, Jews, Brazilians, Irishmen, Presbyterians, Mormons, chewing-gum, sunflowers, Heinrich Heine, and two-door coupes.
But Neil could not, on his pension and his tentative salary at Brandl’s, keep up the home which had become his extreme symbol of dignity and independence. He must turn to — what?
Then he was betrayed from inside.
He had never, of late, quite known what to do about his family, and he regarded them with a wry mixture of humor and deepest guilt. He dropped in to see his mother and Joan two or three times a week and found them becoming hermits. He told himself that it was not he but superstition that had made them “Negroes,” but the argument did not relieve him much nor relieve them at all.
His sister, Kitty Sayward, had nothing for him now but a “Yes, what is it?” One member of the family, Cousin Pat Saxinar, had taken the whole business adventurously, perhaps gladly. She had gone to live in a settlement-house in the Southwest End, and was busy there and seemingly content — a good woman as only a good woman can be good.
But Neil had to avoid Brother Robert’s house, because of the resentment of his sister-inlaw, Alice, backed by her brother Harold W. Whittick. She was a bad woman as only a good woman can be bad. In March, she sued Robert for divorce, for cruelty, humiliation, and deceit in not having, before their marriage, told her that he was “colored.”
When Neil brought the news to Vestal, she hesitated. She did not look so disgusted as a man would have liked, but finally she achieved:
“Oh, well, Alice always was one of these what-do-I-get-out-of-it wives. And all her relatives were hammering at her to leave him. I know. My father and sister act as if I were a traitor to them because I don’t leave you. But so far, I’ve pounded them down. I can’t seem to get you out of my heart and soul and flesh. Oh, Neil!”
It was like one of the moments early in marriage when, without preliminary, they had suddenly wanted each other. He could feel the intensity in her, and while her eyes were smiling on him, utterly concentrated on him, she panted and her lips were slightly open. He moved close to her, and the two bodies pressed together, as though they had wills of their own.
He knew that she had unconsciously eaten up the myth that all Negroes, even deskmen and strained and nervous scholars, are superior sexual animals and that her renewed passion was all self-deception, that she was being violated by a son of Xavier Pic who did not really exist. But he could not feel that this was the moment for disquisitions on psychology, as he kissed her and she slowly sighed.
If she was going to be loyal, he thought, she must take her place with Martha Davis and Corinne Brewster. With a complete wife, an adoring child, a friend like Ash, and with Vestal and Martha become friends, what more could a man have?
He advanced his desire to have Ash and Martha here for dinner. Vestal moved uneasily. “Do you think that would be wise? I have no doubt they’re very fine people, but wouldn’t they be embarrassed? Would it be kind to them?”
“Ash is a distinguished chemist, and after dining with Sorbonne professors at the Ritz, in Paris, I guess they won’t wilt before the luxuries of this house!”
“Don’t roar at me! By all means have them, if you insist. But how do you know they ever dined with any professors at any Ritz? Do they boast of things like that?”
“Ash and Martha have never boasted about anything! About the Ritz — I’m just imagining —”
“Why should your Sorbonne professors want to dine with Dr. Davis? Is he that big a chemist? And if he is, why should he want to dine with us? All the chemistry we know is that salt isn’t any good in coffee.”
“I tell you, I’m not thinking of him as a chemist.”
“You didn’t tell me, but never mind that.”
“I think of him as about the most charming man I know.”
“You forget that I met him. He seemed a nice, civil person, but I didn’t notice that he was so reeking with charm.”
“Well, maybe you would have, if you’d looked at him carefully.”
“N’ doubt, n’ doubt. Well, we’ll have them here, and I’ll look at ’em both carefully!”
No, the augury was not good. And Ash said, when he was invited by telephone, “Are you certain that Mrs. Kingsblood would like to have us?”
The Davises came, well-dressed, soft-voiced, attentive, everything perfect except that they never were really there. Most of the time, they spoke only in response to whatever Vestal might offer, and as there was very little offering, there was very little responding. Neil had to make talk for all of them, but he was not especially inventive.
Vestal was dreadful. She was too polite; she agreed with everything, without listening to what she was agreeing with.
“I guess the President is having quite a little trouble with all these strikes,” Neil tried.
“Yes, that’s so and — Strikes, did you say?” mumbled Vestal.
“Oh, yes — strikes,” Ash achieved.
Before dinner, Ash and Martha had obediently taken cocktails, but they never quite finished them. “Just like poor relations — conciliatory,” Vestal spitefully muttered to Neil. He had done the ordering and laid the table, but she had cooked the dinner herself and, not listening to Martha’s shy offer to help, she served it, with a look which said to Neil, “Are you satisfied, my lord, now that you see me humbly waiting on these dark intruders?”
When the conversation had almost swooned and died, and no one took up any of Neil’s remarks about airplane service and the Junior College basketball team, Ash straightened up and began to talk, as an expert, about the future of plastics.
“They’re almost too practical,” he said. “We shall have bedrooms for a fairy princess, with concealed lights and transparent beds and cupboards — it will make all the previous conspicuous waste look utilitarian.”
“I take it you don’t approve of people having pretty things,” said Vestal, and that killed that.
When they were drinking coffee in the living-room and everybody was suffering and waiting for the end of the bad farce, Biddy came down in pajamas, quite illicitly. She stood in front of Ash, looked polite and solicitous, and chanted, “Oh, your face is dirty!”
Even Vestal was shocked, but Ash smiled, with “No, that’s just my tan, young lady.”
“Did you go to Florida and get tanned? My dolls have just been to Florida. They stayed at Palm Beach and they said it was very expensive. Or did you drink too much coffee? My mummy says if I drink coffee before I’m sixteen, I’ll get all brown, too. My, I wouldn’t like to be all brown. Don’t you mind being all brown?”
She said it with the liveliest interest and, ignoring the signals from her mother’s shaking head, she crawled into Martha’s lap and rested her head against Martha’s shoulder.
So Vestal was altogether too bright and jolly about it.
Ash looked at her more steadily than before, then glanced at Biddy with a quality of pure love, and Ash said, “No, baby, I wouldn’t mind being permanently tanned if there weren’t so many people that can’t seem to stand the sun. They like cellars and anemia better.”
“What’s denemia?” demanded Biddy.
Vestal did a Viennese operetta in the jocundity with which she caroled, “Now dearest, you skip up to bed and don’t bother Dr. and Mrs. — uh — Davis.”
The guests managed to get away without violence.
Vestal sobbed, “Oh, I know, I know I was horrid, but Neil, I just can’t do it. I don’t mind your being a Negro — because I don’t think you really ARE— I think there’s a trick in it. But I can’t stand THEM, or any other colored people, and there’s no use my trying.”
“You listen here!”
“How can I help it? Nobody could have been more well bred and intelligent than Ash and Martha, if you’d given them a chance —”
“That’s the trouble! I’ve been brought up to believe that darkies are funny people, dancing and laughing and saying, ‘Oh, thank you, Miss Vestal, ma’am, you white folks is sure wonderful to us poor coons.’ But this Davis sketch thinks I’m just another female that’s dumb about chemistry and economics. Cellar and anemia indeed! Oh, I know I’m unreasonable, but my heart isn’t in it. And my heart has to be in anything I do now, because I’m going to have another baby.”
When Neil had thoroughly betrayed all his anxiety by trying to sound delighted, Vestal said gravely, “Let’s not have any guff about welcoming THIS little stranger. I hate it, oh, I simply hate it! I’ve been longing all day to escape somewhere where nobody knows me. I can’t stand giving birth to a Negro baby! Somehow Biddy doesn’t seem like one — I’m sure she isn’t. But now to have a black baby — I can’t do it. I want an abortion, and I don’t want one and I won’t have one, and I’m nearly crazy!”
She sobbed all night. Biddy came anxiously in to see “what she could do for poor Mummy,” and Neil lay on the other bed and stared at the rolling films of light thrown on the ceiling by passing cars.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57